“A river cuts through rock, not because of its power, but because of its persistence.” Jim Watkins
1. 2. 3. 4. 5. 6. 7. 8. 9. And ten.
I’m not a math teacher, but it’s pretty obvious that ten isn’t a huge number. Yet, here it is. My tenth blog entry. Like most endeavors, it’s not easy when we first begin: every journey begins with a single step (Maya Angelou), If you can't say something nice, don't say nothing at all (Bambi), just do it (Nike), if you are going through hell, keep going (Winston Churchill), and just keep swimming (Dory). All fine words of advice, and here I am with ten more pieces of writing than I would have had, had I not started the first one. So chalk one up for persistence!
If you’re here reading this, you might have wondered why I have a picture of rocks on a blog that’s mostly about education. It’s actually a photo of the sauna stove in our basement. As the rust shows, it’s well loved. I grew up in a small collection of Finnish farms and everyone had a sauna. In fact, most of those early settlers, like my grandparents, built their sauna first and their house second. Wednesday and Saturday nights like clockwork were (and still are) sauna night. Saunas aren’t a luxury - they are as integral to Finns as breath. There’s so much to write about saunas! Another lifetime ago, I actually wrote a sauna book, sauna poetry, and a sauna play…which was even performed…just in towels. Ha ha. A VHS copy still exists but is stored in a top-secret hiding spot to protect the actors from internet infamy if it ever got out!
The power in a sauna’s heat is the rocks. My dad says the darker the rock, the better the steam. And for some unknown reason, we don’t tell someone to throw water on the rocks, but tell them to ‘throw some steam.’ Likely lost in translation somewhere! But rocks aren’t indestructible and last summer I had to replace some. Many were split, and even more were reduced to colorful mineralized dust at the bottom. Just like a river will slowly break rocks apart through time and repetition, so does water and heat. Ahhh science.
The Finns have a word called sisu. It’s often loosely defined as persistence…pushing through adversity or never ever giving up. I’ve heard it described as the Finns fighting and losing a dozen wars to Russia, but never surrendering. More locally, it’s kind of personified by Toronto Maple Leafs fans, still trying for their first cup win since 1967. (Sorry, couldn’t resist!) That’s the way I have always understood sisu, as a physical, mental, and spiritual toughness, but as I’ve done more reading about it, I’m understanding that it is more than that. I find that Emilia Lahti explains it best:
"Sisu denotes extraordinary determination, courage and resoluteness in the face of extreme adversity. It relates to an action mindset that enables individuals to take action against very slim odds and reach beyond the observed limitations of their present moment. Sisu begins where grit and perseverance end. As a construct, it is an integral part of the Finnish culture but it is also a universal capacity of humans all across the word.”
I started to think about sisu this week after reading an article about mediocrity. In fact, it was called “In Praise of Mediocre Kids.” Hardly similar concepts on the surface. But as I read through it, the two ideas connected.
"What’s so wrong with wanting our kids to succeed, anyway? Nothing, technically, but nearly half of all college students are struggling with anxiety and depression in pursuit of perfection, Hutchinson tells me: 'They’re incredibly driven…but not all that happy.' While she says there’s no direct causal link, she definitely thinks this 'high-performance, high-productivity culture' is contributing to their fragile states of mind. Kids nowadays have worked so hard to get to where they are that they’re burned out by the time they reach college. Rather than thriving, they’re merely surviving…Hutchinson points to teenagers’ lack of resilience—the ability to face and overcome challenges. The issue is that “we’re not allowing our kids to make mistakes and learn from them.”
Lahti talks about an action mindset, and to me it seems very similar to the growth mindset concept in education. Essentially, we need to see taking risks as a way that we learn; to see failure as feedback needed to grow; to see that effort and attitude shape your results; to see challenges as opportunities, not setbacks. Practice. Perseverance. Persistence. Sisu.
Or as Lahti also says, “It’s about not seeing a silver lining in the clouds, and yet jumping into the storm anyways.” Have a great week everyone.
p.s. Tervetuloa! Welcome! Our sauna is always hot…come over anytime!
**I wrote this on February 9. At that point, I hadn’t even thought about starting a blog. I literally hadn’t written anything in years. And I truly didn’t anticipate the impact that the ‘not guilty’ verdict in the Colten Boushie shooting that night would have on me. I was gutted – I sat at the computer until 1am and wrote and wrote. Eventually, it turned into the piece below. I sent it to one friend and one stranger, then set it aside. In the moment, that was enough. It was written out of despair, not a place I like to dwell, let alone share with others. But this weekend, I had a change of heart.
Moving our daughter home from Calgary gave me the chance to pore through two books as we drove: Three Day Road and The Inconvenient Indian, A Curious Account of Native People in North America. I can’t believe I hadn’t read Three Day Road yet, a gripping story about two indigenous soldiers in WWI. The Inconvenient Indian was informative and insightful, while dismantling the legends we tell ourselves about First Nation people. They both reminded me that my way of seeing the world is precisely just that. But it was a line in the latter book, written in 2012, that made me pull my original piece back out: “In spite of such impediments, Native people in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries have begun to find moments of success within the legal systems of North America. Perhaps, after all this time, the laws of the land will finally ride to the rescue and we will all live happily ever after.” It doesn’t. We aren’t.
“Sometimes people hold a core belief that is very strong. When they are presented with evidence that works against that belief, the new evidence cannot be accepted. It would create a feeling that is extremely uncomfortable, called cognitive dissonance. And because it is so important to protect the core belief, they will rationalize, ignore, and even deny anything that doesn’t fit in with the core belief.” (Fanon, 1952) I know there’s a diverse group that reads this blog. For some of you, this will not be a comfortable read. But please do read it, question it, reflect on it, put perspective to it…but mostly shine a light onto what you believe and why you’ve come to believe it. “Perhaps it is unfair to judge the past by the present, but it is also necessary.” (Thomas King)
'This injustice is common for us'
There’s a crisis moment in Lord of the Rings on the eve of battle, where defeat seems imminent. Elrond says, “I give hope to men” and Aragorn replies, “But I keep none for myself.” That sums up how I’m feeling tonight. That, and despondent. I work with youth, and I know that there are many times that I am the only hope in their difficult lives. Yet tonight, I keep none of that hope for myself. All the little steps we have taken toward treaty education, reconciliation, heck even just a little bit of patience and understanding and empathy, all seems for nought.
Like most white people over the age of 40, I never learned anything in school about indigenous people; never even heard the term ‘residential school’ until I was in university circa 1990. I knew our own settler story and was proud of it. I still am. It’s quite a feat. But it wasn’t until I had two Metis babies that I learned there was another side to that story: one that included residential schools, abuse, and intergenerational trauma. Yep, neighbors, that’s a real thing. And only because of other family supports, it has a there-but-for-the-grace-of-god ending.
So I’ve thought a lot about the youth I’ve encountered over twenty years, the majority of them white. The only brown kids we have mainly come from foster homes, but that’s a story for another time. In those years, how many local kids have gone drinking at bare-ass beach and then booze cruised the back roads? Dealt drugs, vandalized buildings, rummaged through cars in town? Ripped doughnuts in a freshly seeded field? Gotten stuck? Rolled a car? Needed help? If you’re not sure what the answer is, it’s lots. LOTS. Heck, every other week the Facebook discussion page for town has complaints of kids ripping around (*there was another one posted just today*) and vehicles being broken into. Are they yelled at, chased away, had the cops called on them? Absolutely. But I’ll guarantee that not once has any one of those white kids had a hammer smash their windshield, a gun pulled on them, warning shots fired ‘straight up in the air,’ or got a magical-JFK-style bullet in the back of their head.
I was in my twenties, driving to Lloydminster, in a blizzard. I had to come a long way, so to be fair, it wasn’t bad when I started out, but the black ice and visibility had the RCMP closing the road with me still out there on it. I was only 10kms from the city when I finally saw yard lights and pulled in. I grew up on a farm, and really wasn’t too worried. But when an older lady opened the door, I could see in her face that she wasn’t going to let me in. I don’t remember what I said, but she relented and I waited out the storm for several hours, looking at the quilts she was making and having a cup of coffee. I honestly wonder, twenty years later, if my brown-skinned, hazel-eyed daughter would have gotten the same courtesy?
I know that so many people in my community want to say it isn’t about race, but that’s what you feel and say, when you don’t know what ‘race’ actually feels like. Like one comment I read tonight, “This injustice is common for us.” I guess 150+ years of systematic starvation, pass and permit systems, and stolen children makes you well practiced for a decision like this. Me? I was naïve enough to be shocked.
Acclaimed educator Penny Kittle writes, “Nothing without joy.” And although her words are meant for students and reading, it’s a universal sentiment. I also believe "Nothing without hope." I won’t give up hope completely, and although I may have none for myself right now, I know that in the days ahead, I will draw strength from the First Nation leaders and others who speak of dialogue, partnership, and reconciliation. I can’t allow myself to despair. I know that I still need to hope, and to bring hope to others. I just have to find it again.
Kiitos-Hiy Hiy-Thanks for reading!
This was a week, and a weekend in particular, where I just couldn’t stay ahead of the curve. And although it was tempting to not post at all, someone brought a phrase to my attention today: micro-ambitious. I love it. So I’m being micro-ambitious with this post…it’s going to be short, and it’s just passages from some books that I finished reading…okay, so it's definitely more micro than ambitious haha. By the way, I loved both of these books – definitely worth reading.
From The Humans by Matt Haig:
In every life there is a moment. A crisis. One that says: what I believe is wrong. It happens to everyone, the only difference is how that knowledge changes them. In most cases, it is simply a case of burying that knowledge and pretending it isn’t there. That is how humans grow old. That is ultimately what creases their faces and curves their backs and shrinks their moths and ambitions. The weight of that denial. The stress of it. This is not unique to humans. The single biggest act of bravery or madness anyone can do is the act of change.
I was something. And now I am something else.
I was a monster and now I am a different type of monster. One that will die, and feel pain, but one that will also live, and maybe even find happiness one day. Because happiness is possible for me now. It exists on the other side of the hurt.
From Mind Platter by Najwa Zebian:
“Follow Your Soul”
No one knows what you need to do more than you do. Cry when you need to. It’s relieving. Laugh when you need to. It’s healing. Sit alone when you need to. It’s necessary. Surround yourself with strangers when you need to. It’s eye-opening. Living by your needs is not easy. No one said it was. But a fact that you should always remember is this: You are more worthy of being taken care of than anyone around you. And I don’t mean the superficial kind of care. I mean the care that your soul needs. Everyone around you is struggling somehow. Everyone around you is trying to reach a goal, a destination, or a dream. Just as you might not expose your worries to the world, no one else has to. Remember that you are a work in progress. You are not perfect. You are not expected to be. Do not allow the fear of falling to stop you from jumping. Do not allow the fear of responsibility to stop you from committing. Do not allow the fear of exposure to stop you from shining.
“The Power of Words”
Your words can be more healing than any kind of medicine. They can be more toxic than any kind of poison. They can ease a mind of its nagging questions. They can relieve a heart from its doubts. They can free a heart from the chains that keep it holding on and that make it fear letting go. They can spring hope into a deserted heart. They can shatter a soul barely holding on to the pieces that make it strong. They can be a shelter for the broken and a canon of motivation for those who need confidence. They can build mountains of confidence and build stairs to those dreams that hide above the clouds. They can dig holes into the darkest and deepest of scars. They can strike happiness into the souls in most need of it, and they can strike sadness into the souls of those most far away from it. So, before you speak, ask yourself if your words are true. If they are not, then you are fooling the hopeless into hope that won’t last. You are breaking down walls temporarily that will be built even higher afterward. Say what the truth and genuineness in your heart need to say. Say no more.
Kiitos-Hiy Hiy-Thanks for reading!
Retirement! We think that when we get to that next place or next stage, we’ll be happy. When we get married, then we’ll be happy. When we have kids, then we’ll be happy. When we retire…. As hundreds of memes and a quick google search will tell you, happiness is a journey not a destination. But it was a pre-internet age, and this was the first time I had even considered the idea of happiness, let alone embracing it where and when you are. It was a profound moment, and without sounding too clichéd, I kept Maureen’s story close to my heart and used it as a touchstone as I grew (aged?) through life. As I look back, the best I can say is, I’ve really tried.
It’s not a new concept, I know. Carpe diem. Stop and smell the roses. Yolo. (Oh it was a momentous day when kids stopped saying that word!) When someone does something selfless or generous or life-altering, people often lament, “Why can’t we be like that everyday?” Ummmm. You can. But you have to make a conscious decision to try. Same thing with happiness. I think that at some level we all understand the idea, but we lose sight of it in doing household chores, driving kids to practices, and nagging. The minutia of everyday life. In our North American culture, it’s also easy to mistake materialism with happiness, to get hung up on ‘stuff.’ It’s a hard habit to break, but I digress.
As much as none of us need anything, I still believe in the sentiment of gift-giving, so at Christmastime, I gave my mom a mug. I knew she would like it as it was a Finnish brand, iitala, plus I wanted to support a local store that an intern at our school co-owned. My only condition was YOU HAVE TO USE IT. I didn’t want it put on a shelf as a decoration. (Granted, it is lovely. The Finns are design masters.) But when I went home at Easter, there was the mug. On a shelf. As a decoration. Mom!!
I’ve heard the word ‘nudge’ get used a lot recently. I like it. It’s a subtle thing. Like the little tap on a student’s shoulder as a redirect, or the kazillion messages a little eye contact can convey. So I gave my mom a nudge with a tweet I saw: “Don’t ever save anything for a special occasion. Being alive is the special occasion.” It’s like that scientific law that says an object at rest stays at rest, and an object in motion stays in motion. UNLESS it gets nudged lol. Mom called me back to say she was having coffee in her new mug.
Yes, there are things that should be kept for special occasions. If everything is special, then nothing is. I get that too. But if I am truly embracing happiness in each moment, then I give as much as I can and tuck away as little as possible. That goes for our teaching selves too.
It’s not always easy. This past week has been a tough one. I had a huge to-do list of work and home stuff to accomplish with my holiday week, but ended up catching a cold at Easter and almost none of it got done. So frustrating. Now the list waits until summer, and with our temperature still at -16 this morning, that feels eons away. But in finding some happiness in each moment, I managed to read a few books as I was relegated to the couch. That was a good thing, as there’s never enough time to read!
Then on Friday night, like all of Saskatchewan, I was absolutely shaken by the news about the Humboldt Broncos bus accident that killed fifteen people and injured fourteen more. As the names and details continue to come out, each story personalizes and compounds the tragedy even more. Unthinkable. Heart-breaking. As Scott Moir wrote, “The death of young people will never make sense.” No. It never does. There is no happiness here, but in true prairie spirit, there is resolve and resilience in things like blood drives, donations, Stars and EMT support, organ donation awareness, candlelight vigils, and many many people hugging their kids a little tighter. A little longer. It is a random, senseless, gut-wrenching reminder and one I wish we didn’t get in this way: that being alive truly is the special occasion.
Kiitos-Hiy Hiy-Thanks for reading!
This weekend marks the Easter holiday and the beginning of a week break from school. Instead of springtime temperatures though, we have been plunged back into a never-ending deepfreeze. Winter blues are in abundance, even for me. I’m tired. Making it through the last few days of school, while keeping up a positive persona, took a lot of energy. The seasonal daytime high for our area is +5 Celsius, yet as I write, the temperature is a balmy -20 with a -28 windchill. Niiiiice. And although we collectively understand that warmer times will inevitably arrive, there is some frustration in enduring the here-and-now.
I suppose that is a metaphor for the Easter season as well. In the truly Christian sense, the dark events of Good Friday lead to the good news and resurrection of Easter Sunday, and the message that no matter how desperate and desolate the present may be, there is hope and forgiveness for all people. In a secular sense, the spring equinox is the short, equal balance of light and dark, a tipping point where we move toward longer days and shorter nights. Spring brings new life from the earth, water out of ice, and change is everywhere in abundance. (Eventually!)
I was thinking about change earlier in the week, as I had the opportunity to talk to some education students at the university. It was an impromptu appearance, nothing major, as I just fielded questions about the job, like ‘what do you love most about teaching?’ Pffft. That’s easy. The kids. 100%. (And if that’s not the #1 answer for people, you may want to think about why we are here.) Another question was ‘what do you find most interesting about teaching?’ Now this is where the first thought that popped into my mind was: change. Every day is different. Every. Single. Day. Heck, no two consecutive hours, even if you attempt to teach the same lesson in the same course at the same grade level, will ever be replicated. The change factor? Students.
I love change. Change provides us with the opportunity to begin again. Leave behind the past and start fresh. That works for students just as much as it does for adults. Personally, I couldn’t imagine working at a job where everything is predictable, an assembly-line monotony that would crush my spirit in mere minutes. Of course, change on a personal level is much more difficult, particularly when I don’t agree that the change is necessary. (Sorry, but only two cups of coffee a day is NOT a reasonable amount!) So there are times when I need to acknowledge that I am eagerly accepting of change because I am the harbinger of it, and times I need to remember the feeling of having change imposed on me.
There is a lot of educational writing on understanding the dynamics of change. I love how Michael Fullan captures this paradox. “I’ve said that the marks of a change agent are relentless commitment to a cause and flexibility in how to serve that cause. To combine the two, you need to become simultaneously assertive and sensitive, demanding and understanding, confident while doubting, local and big picture, essential at the beginning and dispensable at the end.” To state the obvious, implementing change is hard. After the Easter break, our school is making a change to our weekly learning hour, and adding in time for school-wide literacy. Our admin brought the idea to the staff for feedback, communicated the research and reasoning with parents, and facilitated classroom discussions to hear student perspectives. Even with this transparency, change makes people uncomfortable; like the quote at the top says, "Change is never easy, but always possible." (Barack Obama)
Change is obviously a core tenet of education and the multi-faceted aspects of it are truly ever-changing. New classes. New curricula. New students. New seating plans. Changes in policy. Changes in assessment. Changes in staffing. Transformational change. With so many pieces in flux, where do you even start? I like a quote by Arthur Ashe: “Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can.” And for us in education, that begins with asking: What is best for our students? What is best for our school? As we come back next week, we will start a new month, with a new schedule, and with a clear goal: "that these changes will significantly impact the learning of all DCS students in a positive and meaningful way." Just like spring, I can't wait!
Happy Easter! Hyvää Pääsiäistä!
Kiitos - Hiy Hiy - Thanks for reading!
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